Paulina Lis
Designing cities for sustainability, resilience and happiness
TEDxSanDiego 2017

Since the early 60s, work of community organizer and writer Jane Jacobs has been inspiring healthy and thriving cities and neighborhoods. In one of her books, Jane Jacobs wrote that cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.

By 2030 San Diego’s population is going to grow by an additional million people, which means that each of us is going to play a role in shaping San Diego’s future for 4 million San Diegans, and we have to do it within current geographical boundaries, while addressing the challenges of climate change public health and drought.

Whether it’s your personal choice of your home, the vote of the next Mission Valley Project, or input on your community planning board, it will be our collective vision that drives San Diego’s future. So what set of values should we use to create a city truly for everybody?

Well, I think we can start with something we all have in common. We all want to be happy. Now happiness of course means something different for each of us, and that diversity is a beautiful thing we have to embrace. We do however have a basic understanding of wellbeing components that are common and necessary for all of us to live a good and happy life.

First of all, we know that money alone does not make us happy. In fact, there is no one single item that does. Instead happiness is a combination of subjective and objective components that influence us and change over time. Today cities are starting to use happiness framework to look at policies, neighborhoods, and communities to create places that help us all flourish and thrive.

Two-thirds of us currently live in urban areas and cities. On an average an American citizen spends 90 percent of their time indoors, and additional 6 percent of their time commuting between spaces. That adds up to 200 million people spending on average 23 hours a day in a human made space or a vehicle.

For cities to use happiness framework, and change that scenario, and create positive impact, means to create a restorative values in four dimensions; personal, economic, society and natural systems. Now, because built environment exists and surrounds everything that we do, it is a perfect platform to create positive impact in those multiple dimensions. So today I want to tell you about a couple of examples of how this is being done around the country.

So close your eyes for a moment, take a deep breath in, and imagine taking your blissful morning yoga class in a wastewater treatment facility plant. Open your eyes. Exhale. Now I hope this is what you imagined. Taking yoga classes next to wastewater treatment system is exactly what the leadership of the Omega Center for Sustainable Living had for its facility in Rhinebeck New York. This building treats water from surrounding 119 facilities from toilets, showers, and sinks.

By taking a cascading system on the natural treatment stages, where the one is purified by microscopic algae, bacteria, plants, and even snails. No chemicals are used in the process. After about 36 hours cycle the water is being returned to the aquifer fire deep beneath the campus to recharge the watershed. The process is completely clean, safe, and powered by renewable energy. The building, as well as the water system, are designed to bring as many plants and natural environment to the building as possible.

Exposure to natural environment and plants have been proven to not only purify air, but also improve our mental wellbeing and help us reduce stress of everyday life. The Omega center is a perfect example of a building that creates restorative value to both people inside, as well as the earth. The framework of happiness and well-being, and the idea of creating intentional positive impact, can be applied to spaces between buildings as well.

In most cities alleys are one of the most underutilized places. They lack lighting infrastructure, storm water, or any paving infrastructure, and offer serve as a perfect feeding ground for crime and environmental degradation. That does not make anybody happy. Well the city of L.A. is currently looking at 250 acres of alley space available in South L.A.. To reenvision the alleys, address a multitude city problems, and create positive impact in communities. From the very beginning of the green alleys master opened program, it was understood that it is community input that has to be driving the success of the program.

Over the course of over 40 workshops, interviews, and surveys ,the city has collected information from its citizens to understand what changed that they want to see in their neighborhoods. That information was later paired with in-depth environmental research t create design solutions for each project area that respond exactly to social cultural and environmental needs of a particular neighborhood.

Some of the design solutions that were proposed and implemented include: adding permeable spaces as pavement in the alleys to help with stormwater management and create community connectivity, closing some of the alleys completely to car traffic, creating pedestrian friendly zones, therefore creating play areas for kids and adding plants, to add more nature which helps with the well-being and also in addressing some of our climate change challenges.

That design you see in the picture is just one of the alleys. However, the whole project covers 18 square miles, and touches upon 350,000 residents. It is designed to work as a network, and work in sync with bike lanes, sidewalks, and streets to create connectivity in the neighborhood, encourage people to walk or bike more, and get them out of their cars.

This project is a great example of how our urban area design, as well as the process itself, can help us foster community happiness by creating opportunities to strengthen our networks and create more trust between neighbors. So let’s bring it a little closer to home and talk about the projects right here.

Five years ago the San Diego Food Bank partnered with San Diego Green Building Council to look at opportunities of greening their facility in Mira Mesa. One of the goals of the project from the very beginning was to use it as a platform to create educational opportunities for our community members, to teach them about sustainability and the built environment. Over the course of the project almost 100 volunteers had a chance to perform an in-depth analysis of energy, water, and waste operations at the San Diego Food Bank.

Today, San Diego Food Bank is one of the greenest facilities of its kind in the country, with net zero energy status, and almost net zero waste status. San Diego Jacobs Cushman Food Bank saved enough money to provide an additional 875,000 meals in our community.

Now the San Diego Food Bank staff knows that their facility is key to delivering on this important mission of feeding our community members in need. Today they’re looking beyond net zero energy and into opportunities for complete off the grid operations to increase resiliency and make sure they can operate during the time of natural disasters when we need their help with food and shelter the most.

This project is a great example of how by addressing our buildings operational costs and environmental impact, we can positively influence our community, strengthen networks, and support networks in our community, and create educational opportunities. So, can buildings ourselves make us happy? Well, not on their own, because as I mentioned earlier, happiness is combined of a multitude of factors, such as access to natural environment, time/work balance, health, and community relationships.

But buildings surrounding everything that we do. Therefore they create a perfect ground for us to create opportunities to flourish and thrive. Each of us has an opportunity to impact that. Whether it’s your choice of your personal home, your commute, decisions you make at work, or input on a public project. We all shape our built environment, and in return it shapes us. So let’s use this opportunity to create happier lives, in happier cities, for everybody.